MIDDLETOWN, Pa. – After putting together the most successful season in program history a year ago, what will the Penn State Harrisburg men's basketball team do for an encore this winter?
That's the question on the minds of students and basketball fans around campus as the 2012-13 season draws ever nearer. Last year saw the Blue and White win a school-record 20 games, earn an NCAA national statistical championship in the steals per game category and reach the North Eastern Athletic Conference (NEAC) title game for the second-straight season.
Some integral pieces of the Lions' breakout squad from 2011-12 are gone but those key players that do return this season are hungrier than ever to prove that last year was more than simply a flash in the pan.
The upcoming campaign will be crucial to building upon the budding program's foundation laid by the likes of all-time leading scorer Kenton Alston (Harrisburg, Pa. / Steel-High), 2011-12 NCAA Division III steals per game champion Steve Jones (Harrisburg, Pa. / Harrisburg) and 2011 NEAC all-conference selection David Reisinger (Harrisburg, Pa. / Central Dauphin East), none of whom will don the team's new uniforms this season.
Two starters from a year ago return this fall. Senior point guard Jordan Gatchell (Manheim, Pa. / Manheim Central) will once again be team's floor general while dynamic sophomore William Doyle (Franklin, Va. / Tidewater Academy) will play a larger role as an upperclassman. These two young men will be called upon to lead the Lions this winter.
A number of younger players with experience are also back to defend their 2011-12 NEAC South Division championship. Junior Julius Brown (McComb, Miss. / McComb) and freshman Alberto De Los Santos (Enola, Pa. / East Pennsboro) will fill in at the guard spots while a pair of Hempfield grads in Joseph Farthing (Lancaster, Pa. / Hempfield) and Ethan Strayer (Lancaster, Pa. / Hempfield) could split time between the guard and forward positions. Look for sophomore big man Kevin Icker (Scranton, Pa. / Scranton Prep) to see action at both the number four and five spots this season.
Penn State Harrisburg has an abundance of incoming talent to balance out the team's veteran presence. One newcomer the coaching staff has been impressed with in preseason practice is freshman forward Arick Sodini (Manalapan, N.J. / St. John Vianney).
Head Coach Mike Gaffey explained the change in the program's recruiting philosophy during his time at the helm.
"When we recruit players, they are not coming to play basketball at Penn State Harrisburg, they are coming to play basketball for Penn State Harrisburg," he said. "We are extremely proud of scoring over 80 points a game and finishing 26th in the country in scoring because we know kids don't want to play for a team that runs the same set of plays for the same players all the time. They want to play basketball in an up-tempo Kansas-style fast break system."
The Lions have an influx of underclassmen joining the program from all across the region. They've got local products (Hempfield alum Adam Williams, Middletown grad Jared Deibler), one from the coal region (Shamokin's Kieren Kelley), one from the big city (Swenson's Markiem Jenkins), while others still are from out of state. Penn State Harrisburg has extended its reach to Virginia (Joshua Johnson), Maryland (Jamaal DuBose), New York (Frank D'Amadeo) and Delaware (Malcolm Sudler).
The Lions will have to gel quickly if they are to match last season's impressive non-conference winning-percentage. The Blue and White downed established programs including Elizabethtown, Messiah, Susquehanna and Lebanon Valley for the first time a year ago.
Penn State Harrisburg will have plenty of chances to pick up more signature victories this winter as the non-conference slate is a veritable murderer's row of strong opposition. The Lions start the season on the road against Franklin & Marshall, the ninth-ranked team in the nation, on Friday, Nov. 16. Four days later, the men take another step up in competition and face Division II Millersville. Lebanon Valley is on the schedule again this year as are soon-to-be annual Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) foes Wesley and York (Pa.).
The road to a third-straight NEAC championship game also presents challenges, as the defending league champions from Morrisville State return two all-conference selections. The Lions lone regular-season meeting with the Mustangs comes at the Capital Union Building on Feb. 3.
To gear up for this year's schedule, Gaffey said his team has been focusing on working hard in every drill in preseason practice.
"Hard work is a byproduct of success," he said.
That success he's talking about is what has made the mid-state sit up and take notice of Penn State Harrisburg as of late. The expectations are higher than they've ever been. But if met, the reward will be that much sweeter.
"Our own success in such a short period of time has raised the bar when it comes to expectations year in and year out," said Gaffey. "Therefore we have the goal of reaching the conference championship and winning the regular-season league title for a third-consecutive year. There is simply no other way to look at it."
The Lions have quite the task ahead of them. No team has ever had to follow a season like last year's. Yet there's a feeling of excitement in the air in Middletown. It's obvious that Gaffey, his coaching staff and the players wearing Penn State Harrisburg's colors are more than ready to rise to the occasion and face the challenge head on.